In this amazing film that defines the 60s French New Wave movement in cinema, Breathless tells the story of Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a beautiful, naive American girl sent to Paris to study journalism who falls for the thuggish, cynical Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo). This film, directed by the great Jean-Luc Goddard, is about style, about irony, about cynicism and about cinema itself.
The film opens with Michel casually stealing a car and driving through the countryside, even as he narrates the drive to himself. Finding a gun in the glove compartment he shoots a policeman then bolts back to Paris, where he finds Patricia walking down the Champs-Élysées, hawking English-language newspapers.
But Michel and Patricia aren’t just characters in a story, they’re symbols of the tension between cultured and rogue, law-abiding and lawbreaker, journalist and story, and most importantly, between the naive optimism of America versus the post-war cynicism of France.
Breathless revels in contrasts too, with Patricia carelessly dancing from reflector to reflector as she crosses a busy street while Michel casually clobbers a middle-aged businessman in a public restroom and steals his money. It’s shocking, but there’s a sort of depressing logic to their mutual attraction. Later Michel asks Patricia “Do you ever think about death”, as he sits in bed playing with her teddy bear.
In one of my favorite lines from the film, Patricia shares “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or because I’m not free because I’m unhappy” to a journalist friend as Michel follows them, grimacing as they kiss and tracking their every move. But is she unhappy?
The music is also a harbinger of things to come in cinema, an incredibly cool jazz soundtrack that effortlessly switches between cinematic background music and being almost another character in the story. In one memorable scene, Patricia puts on an album of piano jazz and we hear the same riff repeat time after time, highlighting the endless cycle of their edgy yet pointless banter.
“Your car’s not here?” “No, it’s at the garage” Michel explains, then walks off to steal a car so they can travel to Rome and he can hopefully escape the tightening police search. Cool and the essence of suave, his petty criminal acts are presented without judgment and the two have a romantic journey through Paris, even as radio announcements and newspapers feature large photos of Poiccard identified as the “police killer”.
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) gazes as his reflection, even as we watch him on screen
Early in the film Patricia rolls up a poster and looks at Michel through it, seeking to understand the man behind the artifice and pose. We see her point of view in a beautiful shot that highlights the artifice and essential self-consciousness of cinema, even as the two banter and flirt.
Meanwhile, tough-guy police Inspector Vital (Daniel Boulanger) is doggedly investigating the murder, eventually finding his way to Patricia, who flashes her big eyes and smiles as she lies about her relationship with Michel. Does she love Michel or is it the thrill of rejecting the law / establishment that motivates her to do this?
Soon she’s treating their getaway as a lark; “Shall we steal a Cadillac?” she asks, as they pass signs saying “Michel Poiccard arrest imminent” and hundreds of Parisians are seen reading newspapers that feature his photo as the “cop killer”. Finally, though, her essential goodness and belief in the importance of rules wins out and she tells him she’s called Inspector Vital, explaining “I don’t want to be in love with you, that’s why I called the police”.
Breathless is characterized by a choppy edit style and rough pans that represent what was later called the cinema verité style. Here it adds an interesting sense of verisimilitude to the film, as if it’s a home movie, not a cinematic production at all, something reinforced by the casual dialog and inclusion of secondary characters that come and go without any explanation or logic.
In the end, Michel is shot in the back and collapses gracelessly in the street. His last words are that “It makes me want to puke”. Patricia looks into the camera — for the first time in the film — and asks “what does “puke” mean?” The film ends and we’re left breathless ourselves, marveling at the self-conscious morality play we’ve just seen and the cynical tension of post-war progress it illuminates, as it launched so many cinematic trends and styles.